Discourses and Selected Writings

Epictetus

Epictetus's stoicism in a nutshell: when you try to control the incontrollable, you will only face disappointment, anger, sadness, anxiety, fear and suffering. Super easy to digest and packed with useful aphorisms and quotes.

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Books I - IV

Concerning what is in our power and what is not

It’s only my leg you will chain, not even God can conquer my will.’ ‘I will throw you into prison.’ ‘Correction – it is my body you will throw there.’

On progress

It’s as if I were to say to an athlete, ‘Show me your shoulders,’ and he responded with, ‘Have a look at my weights.’ ‘Get out of here with you and your gigantic weights!’ I’d say, ‘What I want to see isn’t the weights but how you’ve profited from using them.’

What philosophy professes

Someone asked Epictetus’ advice on how to get his brother to stop being on bad terms with him. Epictetus said, ‘Bring him to me and I will speak with him; but about his anger I have nothing to say to you.’

To people who want to be admired

When someone is properly grounded in life, they shouldn’t have to look outside themselves for approval.

And who exactly are these people that you want to be admired by? Aren’t they the same people you are in the habit of calling crazy? And is this your life ambition, then – to win the approval of lunatics?

On steadfastness

What philosophy has taught me, though, is to be indifferent to events beyond the will’s control.

That confidence does not conflict with caution

‘Be confident in everything outside the will, and cautious in everything under the will’s control.’

How confidence and carefulness are compatible

So in life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control.

On nerves

Whenever I see a person suffering from nervousness, I think, well, what can he expect? If he had not set his sights on things outside man’s control, his nervousness would end at once. Take a lyre player: he’s relaxed when he performs alone, but put him in front of an audience, and it’s a different story, no matter how beautiful his voice or how well he plays the instrument. Why? Because he not only wants to perform well, he wants to be well received – and the latter lies outside his control.

Why training for impressions is necessary

Just as we practise answering sophistic questions, so should we train for impressions every day, as they implicitly pose their own questions. ‘So-and-so’s son died.’ (‘The question’). Answer: ‘Since it’s nothing he can control, it isn’t bad.’

‘He lamented these events.’ ‘That is in his control – and bad.’ ‘He withstood it like a man.’ ‘That is in his control – and good.’

Every circumstance represents an opportunity

‘Being healthy is good, being sick is bad.’ No, my friend: enjoying health in the right way is good; making bad use of your health is bad. ‘So even illness can benefit us?’ Why not, if even death and disability can?

On freedom

Free is the person who lives as he wishes and cannot be coerced, impeded or compelled, whose impulses cannot be thwarted, who always gets what he desires and never has to experience what he would rather avoid.

The person who renounces externals cannot be hindered, as externals are things that are not within our power either to have or not to have – or to have in the condition we might like. Externals include the body and its members, as well as material goods. If you grow attached to any of them as if they were your own, you will incur the penalties prescribed for a thief.

Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it.

To those intent on living quietly

I cannot call somebody ‘hard-working’ knowing only that they read and write. Even if ‘all night long’ is added, I cannot say it – not until I know the focus of all this energy. You don’t call someone ‘hard-working’ who stays up nights with their girlfriend. No more do I. If the goal is glory, I call them ambitious; if it’s money, I call them avaricious. If, however, their efforts aim at improving the mind, then – and only then – do I call them hard-working.

Fragments

Whoever chafes at the conditions dealt by fate is unskilled in the art of life; whoever bears with them nobly and makes wise use of the results is a man who deserves to be considered good.

‘Persist and Resist’. Epictetus would say that there were two vices much blacker and more serious than the rest: lack of persistence and lack of self-control. The former means we cannot bear or endure hardships that we have to endure, the latter means that we cannot resist pleasures or other things we ought to resist.

People with a strong physical constitution can tolerate extremes of hot and cold; people of strong mental health can handle anger, grief, joy and the other emotions.